Bill Lee

Lee squashes Capitol Hill rumors by confirming he will run for second term

Bill Lee delivers his inaugural address in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has brought an end to persistent statehouse humors that might not seek second term in 2022.

“I love this job,” Lee said when asked about his plans during a press conference late last week. “It’s been a big challenge, but I love serving Tennesseans and I intend to do that as long they’ll let me.”

Pressed whether that meant he would run again, Lee responded: “Yes.”

The question was the last one posed of the governor by The Tennessean’s Joel Ebert before leaving for a new job in his native Chicago.

Ebert reports potential candidate to succeed Lee include House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs. Others might include U.S. Rep. Mark Green, former Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter, Republican U.S. Senate nominee Bill Hagerty. The paper also includes U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn on the list of possible candidates.

The only eligible sitting governor not to seek re-election to second term was scandal-plagued Ray Blanton in 1978.

According to Ebert:

The pep Lee exuded during his early days in office has dissipated some as he’s faced months of difficult decisions due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the March tornadoes and occasional bouts with state lawmakers. 

Lee noted Thursday was the six-month anniversary since the deadly tornadoes touched down in Middle Tennessee, which was quickly followed by the state’s first case of COVID-19.

“Uncertain times, though, bring out the very best of people and we have certainly seen that in our state,” he said.

Tennessee updates COVID-19 reporting details

Gov. Bill Lee, left, announces a $200 million relief program for businesses affected by the state’s stay-at-home order for non-essential businesses at Arnold’s restaurant in Nashville on June 2, 2020. To his right are House Speaker Cameron Sexton, Senate Speaker Randy McNally, Rep. Pat Marsh, and Rep. Harold Love. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee’s adminstration is updating the way it discloses COVID-19 information. Here’s the full release::

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Department of Health is improving the format for sharing of data on COVID-19 to update how some metrics are calculated and reflect evolving knowledge of the pandemic. The new format will begin September 3, 2020 and reflect a change in how active cases are calculated and a correction in county of residence for some cases. In addition, TDH is adding new resources including data snapshots for each county and a Critical Indicators Report. TDH data on COVID-19 will be posted at 3 p.m. CDT Sept. 3 at www.tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov.html as the new format is implemented.

“We’re pleased to be adding new reports to help support rapid public health actions in Tennessee communities,” said Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, MD, MBA, FAAP. “We also want to promote data transparency and help Tennesseans understand the reason case counts for some counties will change as we correct information based on their addresses.”

Reporting Inactive/Recovered Cases

Starting Sept. 3, TDH case count reports will include figures for “Inactive/Recovered” cases and will no longer include data for “Recovered” cases. “Inactive/Recovered” cases will include people who are 14 days or more beyond their illness onset date (or, for asymptomatic cases, their specimen collection date). This will more closely align with what is now understood about the infectious period of COVID-19, as recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show most patients with COVID-19 are no longer infectious after 10 days.

Previously, TDH considered a case recovered after a 21-day period.

Correcting County Locations

TDH is also correcting discrepancies in county location for about 1,700 cases, as the county to which they were originally assigned does not correspond correctly to their street addresses. This can occur in laboratory reports because some lab systems automatically assign county location based on the patient’s ZIP code, which may be incorrect if the ZIP code straddles county lines. These cases will be corrected all at once, which will result in case count changes for some counties. A solution is in place to automate this process in the future.

New Reports and Data Points

Starting Sept. 3, individual County Data Snapshots will provide information on case counts, hospitalizations, testing and more for each county at www.tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov/data/county-data-snapshot.html. In addition, the new weekly Critical Indicators Report includes information to help stakeholders monitor trends in cases, symptoms, testing capabilities and health care system capacity. Find the Critical Indicators Report online at www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/health/documents/cedep/novel- coronavirus/CriticalIndicatorReport.pdf. TDH is also adding data on current hospitalizations to daily information posted at www.tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov.html.

Tennessee’s county health departments continue to offer COVID-19 testing at no charge to anyone who wishes to be tested. Find a map of health department locations and contact information online at www.tn.gov/content/tn/health/cedep/ncov/remote-assessment- sites.html. County health department testing sites will be closed Sept. 7 for Labor Day.

TDH is posting updated COVID-19 case numbers by 2 p.m. CDT each day at www.tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov.html. Find additional information at www.tn.gov/governor/covid-19.html and www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.

Teachers’ union warns new COVID-19 liability protection could backfire on schools

The House meets at the state Capitol in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, says the new law enacted to provide legal protections to businesses and schools may have the opposite effect.

TEA President Beth Brown said in a release that the new law’s standards of gross negligence or willful misconduct could make schools liable if they buck federal guidelines and designate educators to be “essential workers.”  

 “TEA believes the few school districts designating educators as essential to avoid isolation protocols for staff directly exposed to a positive COVID case could meet the definition the ‘gross negligence’ and ‘willful misconduct’ outlined in the new liability law,” Brown said in a release. “CDC guidance on isolation after exposure limits spread and protects communities. Disregarding this guidance may have liability repercussions as well as unnecessarily jeopardize the health of students and educators and increase the likelihood of school closures and disrupted instruction.”

The full release follows.

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Lee extends executive orders through September

Gov. Bill Lee arrives for a press conference on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has extended several executive orders through the end of September, including special provisions to allow governing bodies to meet electronically and for bars to sell alcohol to go.

Here’s the full release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Governor Bill Lee today signed Executive Order No. 59 to extend certain, targeted provisions of Executive Order Nos. 36, 38, 49, 50, 54, and 55 through September 30, 2020 to facilitate the continued treatment and containment of COVID-19 through regulatory flexibility, promoting social distancing and wearing face coverings in public places, and protecting vulnerable populations.

Gov. Lee also signed Executive Order Nos. 60 and 61, which extend through September 30 provisions that allow for electronic government meetings subject to transparency safeguards and remote notarization and witnessing of documents, allowing for implementation of best practices developed during COVID-19 for providing live broadcasts of electronic meetings and safely conducting in-person transactions, respectively, beginning October 1.

Executive Order No. 59 extends previous provisions that:

  • Urge persons to wear a cloth face covering in places where in close proximity to others, while facilitating local decision-making concerning face covering requirements;
  • Urge social distancing and limit social and recreational gatherings of 50 or more persons, unless adequate social distancing can be maintained;
  • Limit nursing home and long-term-care facility visitation, while providing a framework for safe, limited visitation, and continue the closure of senior centers;
  • Provide that employers and businesses are expected to comply with the Governor’s Economic Recovery Group Guidelines (e.g., Tennessee Pledge) for operating safely (the 6 counties with locally run county health departments have authority to issue different directives on businesses/venues);
  • Provide that bars may only serve customers seated at appropriately spaced tables and must follow the Economic Recovery Group Guidelines (e.g., Tennessee Pledge) for restaurants (the 6 counties with locally run county health departments have authority to issue different directives on businesses/venues);
  • Continue access take-out alcohol sales to encourage carryout and delivery orders;
  • Allow broad access to telehealth services;
  • Increase opportunities for people to easily join the healthcare workforce;
  • Facilitate increased testing and health care capacity;
  • Extend deadlines and suspend certain in-person continuing education, gathering, or inspection requirements to avoid unnecessary person-to-person contact; and
  • Increase opportunities to work remotely where appropriate.

Executive Order No. 60, as previously extended by Executive Order No. 51, is extended through September 30 and allows governing bodies to meet electronically regarding essential business as long as they provide electronic access to the public and meet the safeguards established in that order to ensure openness and transparency. The order ensures that governmental entities are able to carry out essential business in a safe, transparent way without creating large gatherings in a confined space and endangering persons, particularly those at increased risk of suffering severe illness from COVID-19, while requiring that governing bodies transition toward adopting best practices developed during the pandemic, like providing real-time, live public access to electronic meetings, beginning October 1.

Executive Order No. 61, as previously extended by Executive Order No. 52, is extended through September 30, and allows for remote notarization and remote witnessing of documents, subject to compliance with certain procedures. The order ensures that persons, and particularly populations especially vulnerable to COVID-19, including older adults and persons with compromised immune systems or serious chronic medical conditions, can continue to engage in commerce and execute legal documents without requiring in-person contact while also making preparations to implement best practices for a safe return to in-person transactions beginning October 1.

More than 2,000 K-12 students test positive for COVID, but school-specific info to remain secret

More than 2,000 school-age children have tested positive for COVID-19 over the past two weeks, but state officials say they won’t release details of where the infections are occurring.

As of Tuesday, 2,099 students between ages 5 and 18 had tested positive, with Davidson County leading the way with 228 cases, followed by 209 in Hamilton County, 202 in Shelby County, 118 in Rutherford County, and 106 in Knox County.

Gov. Bill Lee’s Adminstration says federal privacy laws prevent the release of details about how many children have been infected in specific schools.

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference on Tennessee’s coronavirus response in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

“It’s a balance,” Lee said. “It’s really important that people in a school district can’t figure out which children individually have a case.”

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said there are schools around the state that have fewer than 200 students, where disclosing an outbreak would make it easy to identify who had become sick. It’s unclear how that reasoning would apply to larger schools.

According to WPLN-FM, it’s the fourth time the Lee administration has flip-flopped on making information about the pandemic public. In March, officials at first refused to share county-specific data about infections and deaths. That decision was later reversed. The same went for keeping details of infections at nursing homes secret, which was later dropped amid pushback from the public and the media.

Lee had initially said the school infection information would be kept from the public, only to reverse himself later before once again saying the details will be confidential.

Facebook to build $800M datacenter in Gallatin

A rendering of the new Facebook datacenter in Gallatin.

Social media giant Facebook is building an $800 million datacenter in Gallatin, according to the state Department of Economic and Community Development. More than 1,100 construction workers are expected to work on the project at its peak.

Here’s the ECD release:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe and Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) officials announced today that the global technology company will invest $800 million to build a new state-of-the-art data center in Gallatin.

Once operational, the project is estimated to support approximately 100 jobs and will have more than 1,100 construction workers on site at peak. The data center will support a variety of positions and job types, from technical operations, electricians, logistics staff, security and more. Construction has just begun on the 982,000-square-foot facility.

The Facebook Gallatin Data Center will be among the most advanced, energy- and water- efficient data center facilities in the world. It will be supported by 100 percent renewable energy, will use 80 percent less water than the average, and, once completed, will be LEED Gold certified. Facebook has already partnered with the TVA to bring 220 MW of new solar energy to the Tennessee Valley to support Facebook’s operations in the region.

The announcement is the culmination of a three-year recruitment effort by the Gallatin Economic Development Agency, the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development and Tennessee Valley Authority.

Facebook will join several other large brand names located in the Gallatin Industrial Park, including Beretta USA, Gap and SERVPRO.

Since 2015, TNECD has supported 13 economic development projects in Sumner County, resulting in more than 2,000 job commitments and $223 million in capital investment.

QUOTES

“It is a testament to the quality of our business environment and the competitive spirit of our state that in this economy we are able to attract one of the world’s largest companies to our state. We welcome Facebook to Tennessee, and we are excited about the investment, quality jobs and economic opportunity they will bring to Gallatin.” – Gov. Bill Lee

“Tennessee is known for the companies that call our state home, and we are proud to welcome another globally recognized brand to our roster. Facebook could have chosen anywhere in the world for its newest state-of-the-art data center, and it means a great deal that the company has chosen Gallatin. This substantial investment will make a lasting impact on Sumner County for years to come, and we thank Facebook for its confidence in Tennessee.” – TNECD Commissioner Bob Rolfe

“We chose Gallatin because of its terrific infrastructure, talented workforce, and the spirit of partnership the community offered. This technology is actually what makes Facebook work, allowing people around the world to connect to each other. We are thrilled to be joining the Gallatin community.” – Rachel Peterson, VP of Data Center Strategy, Facebook

“Our community made the decision three years ago to pursue technology jobs as part of our economic development strategy. We are pleased to welcome Facebook to Gallatin, and we look forward to the positive impact they will have on our city.” – Gallatin Mayor Paige Brown

“TVA congratulates Facebook on its decision to locate and create quality job opportunities and significant investment in Gallatin. This public-private partnership demonstrates the strength of TVA’s public power model to deliver clean, renewable energy at competitive costs to stimulate investment and jobs that help communities grow. We are building the energy system of the future, and we are proud to work partners like Gallatin Department of Electricity, the City of Gallatin and Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development to help bring more top-tier companies like Facebook into our region.”  – John Bradley, TVA Senior Vice President of Economic Development

“This is a huge investment by Facebook and is tremendous news for Sumner County. It is a testament not only to the strong talent pool we have in our local workforce, but to the hard work done for many months by Gallatin’s Economic Development team, Governor Bill Lee, Commissioner Bob Rolfe, and other essential community partners to bring these high quality jobs home. I was proud to partner with them. It will also be a catalyst for more companies to see all that Sumner County and Gallatin have to offer with our low taxes, high quality of life, prime location and business friendly environment.” – Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin)

Here’s how much federal relief money is flowing to Tennessee counties

The Senate meets in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A total of $13 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money is flowing to Tennessee, and a new interactive state website allows users to break down how much is headed specific counties.

In a meeting of the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group on Monday, Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) asked whether the amounts can be broken out on a per-capita basis to ensure smaller counties weren’t getting less than the likes of Metro Nashville and Shelby County. Gov. Bill Lee’s administration didn’t have those figures at their fingertips, so the Tennessee Journal has crunched the numbers. Here are the top 10 per-capita recipients of federal aid (Anderson County, where McNally lives, comes in at No. 12):

  1. Jackson, $7,126
  2. Cheatham, $4,363
  3. Davidson, $3,931
  4. Carroll, $3,380
  5. Smith, 3,738
  6. Fayette, $3,525
  7. Cannon, $3,056
  8. Carter, $2,643
  9. Giles, $2,643
  10. Bledsoe, $2,557

The full per-capita breakdown follows:

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Lee calling lawmakers into special session next week

The House meets at the state Capitol in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee plans to call lawmakers into a special session to take up bills to provide legal immunity from COVID-19 lawsuits, establish reimbursement rates for telemedicine appointments, and increase penalties for property damaged in protests, The Tennessee Journal has learned. Similar measures fell apart among inter-chamber discord during the final hours of the regular session in June.

It could turn out to be a bit of a lame duck session for incumbents who aren’t running again and those who lose their primaries on Thursday (if any). They remain in office until the November general election.

UPDATE: The official announcement follows.

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Prominent Tennessee businesses laud Lee effort to move Forrest bust

A group of prominent Tennessee businesses is lauding Gov. Bill Lee’s efforts to move the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest out of the state Capitol.

The Monday letter was signed by 34 companies, including Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee, Bridgestone, Cracker Barrel, FedEx, Google, HCA Healthcare, Nissan, Unum, Vanderbilt, and Volkswagen. The letter was also signed by Pilot Co., the truckstop chain controlled by the family of former Gov. Bill Haslam.

Here’s the text of the letter:

Dear Governor Lee:

We, the businesses listed below, wish to applaud you and the State Capitol Commission for taking an important first step towards the removal of the bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest 
from the Tennessee State Capitol building.

This controversial bust was installed in the Capitol in 1978 despite widespread objections and remains a symbol of oppression for many Tennesseans. A statue of a man who was the first Grand Wizard of the
Ku Klux Klan should not be granted a place of honor in the State Capitol, a building that must remain a beacon of hope, liberty, and democracy.

As leading businesses and corporations in the state, we recognize our  obligation to stand for equality and justice — not just for our employees, but for all Tennesseans. Honoring those who propagated racism and prejudice only serves to further divide our communities and reinforce inequities in our society.

We strongly urge the Tennessee Historical Commission to vote for the prompt removal of the Forrest bust from the Tennessee State Capitol building and ask all Tennessee policymakers to consider additional avenues to recognize wrongs against the Black community and make racial justice a priority. 

Tenn. abortion ban in effect for less than an hour before it is halted

The House meets at the state Capitol in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A federal judge on Monday granted an temporary restraining order against enforcing Tennessee’s sweeping abortion ban less than an hour after Gov. Bill Lee signed it into law.

U.S. District Judge Chip Campbell, an appointee President Donald Trump, found  “plaintiffs have demonstrated a strong or substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their claims that the restrictions …  are unconstitutional under current law.”

“Like the Seventh, Eighth, and Fifth Circuits, this Court is bound by the Supreme Court holdings prohibiting undue burdens on the availability of pre-viability abortions,” he wrote in the ruling.

Read the order here.

The bill seeking to ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected passed in a last-minute deal between the House and Senate the night the General Assembly adjourned for the year.  If any part of the bill was found to be unconstitutional, the law seeks to impose successive abortion bans eight, 10, 12, 15, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23 and 24 weeks of gestation. That “ladder” approach didn’t appear to keep most of the law from being enjoined.